What is ray tracing? – Revised

Even though ray tracing in video games has been around for a few years, it can still be a mystifying term, in part because it’s not a standard graphics option in all games. Additionally, the two major players in the ray tracing space today, Nvidia and AMD, both deal with these special lighting effects in different ways.

A realistic lighting improvement, ray tracing is handled well by Nvidia and AMD graphics cards, and there are enough games that incorporate the effect to at least justify considering picking up a shiny new one. RTX-3080, especially if you like to play high fidelity games like cyberpunk 2077. Here’s everything you need to know about ray tracing.

What is ray tracing?

Credit: Revised/Joanna Nelius/Remedy Entertainment

Control, left to right: Ray tracing on, ray tracing off.

Imagine you are playing a high quality game and your character is standing near a crystal clear lake on a sunny day. The lake stretches out into the distance, and when you look up at it, you see your character’s surroundings reflected in the water. If it wasn’t for the ripples, you’d swear the lake was actually a mirror.

It’s ray tracing: super realistic lighting effects in video games rendered by a graphics card in real time. Shadows are softer, some surfaces are more reflective and detailed, neon lights appear with more intensity. There are a wide variety of lighting effects that ray tracing can handle: reflection, refraction, soft shadows, diffusion, depth of field, motion blur, caustics, ambient occlusion, and dispersion phenomena. All are fancy names for the different ways light bounces off and penetrates real objects inside and outside our homes. What ray tracing does is simulate all of these optical effects.

Ray tracing has been around for a while in the film industry – if you’ve seen a Pixar movie, like Cars, you saw ray tracing. But special lighting effects have only been available in video games since the end of 2018, and even then, the ratio between ray-traced and non-ray-traced games is still very unbalanced. The technology continues to make its way to game developers, and not to mention the complexity of integrating ray tracing into a game, graphics cards capable of handling ray tracing at a reasonable frame rate are very expensive at the moment, although powerful.

Until Nvidia released the first ray-tracing-capable graphics cards in 2018, ray-tracing wasn’t suitable for real-time applications like video games because GPUs couldn’t render frames fast enough. . But not only modern GPUs can now handle these really neat lighting effects, some (like Nvidia’s RTX 3080 Ti) are also powerful enough to run high-fidelity games at 4K on a high or ultra graphics preset while producing 60fps or more.

Do all games have ray tracing?

A split screen of a building in a video game with different lighting effects

Credit: Revised / Joanna Nelius / CD Projekt Red

Cyberpunk 2077, left to right: ray tracing on, ray tracing off.

Unfortunately no. As mentioned above, this is still a relatively new technology for gaming, but each month the list of ray-tracing compatible games grows a bit longer.

When ray tracing first hit graphics cards, less than ten titles incorporated the technology. Now that Nvidia and AMD have added ray tracing to all of their graphics cards (with Intel on the way), the technology is becoming more accessible to the average gamer. (Ignoring the ongoing GPU shortage, of course.) Even the PS5 and Xbox Series X have ray tracing!

It’s not just big video game titles with intense graphics like Cyberpunk 2077 who have ray tracing, neither. Minecraft, Myst, and Lego: the builder’s journey are all games that incorporate technology and can easily run on any system, high end or budget. Sometimes it’s games like the ones that benefit the most from ray tracing because they’re low-fidelity games, so they don’t push your system as hard as the major titles.

To complicate matters, there are ray tracing compatible games that only work with Nvidia graphics cards, such as Wolfenstein: Youngblood . This may be due to agreements between Nvidia and the developer, but this is a rare case; you can use an AMD ray-tracing capable GPU with every other ray-tracing capable game we’ve come across.

Our best advice is to check if the game you want supports ray racing on either system before buying it.

Why do some games look better with ray tracing than others?

A split screen of a building in a video game with different lighting effects

Credit: Revised / Joanna Nelius / Microsoft

Minecraft, left to right: ray tracing on, ray tracing off

The quality of a game’s ray tracing in practice will depend on the individual ray tracing effects the developers have incorporated into their game and the overall graphical demand of the game.

A game like Battlefield V has few ray tracing lighting effects, and that’s a big reason why it performs so well with ray tracing, even with a low-end GPU. Games that have variable rate ray tracing optimized also generally perform better, which Battlefield V also uses.

Variable rate ray tracing prioritizes certain areas of the game being ray traced over others, so if there is a shiny piece of metal on a sidewalk, variable rate ray tracing will render the metal brighter shine without adding sidewalk effects as flat concrete surfaces won’t benefit from the effect nearly as much. This increases the number of frames per second (fps) at which the GPU can render gameplay.

Other games like Control, go all out on ray tracing effects, and there are plenty of in-game surfaces and objects to show it off. But you can turn individual effects on and off.

Control has ray tracing settings for reflections, transparent reflections, indirect diffuse lighting, contact shadows and debris. Turning the ray tracing preset to Medium activates ray tracing for reflections and transparent reflections while turning the same preset to High to activate all five lighting effects. There is also a custom setting that allows you to enable or disable whatever ray tracing settings you want. In contrast, Battlefield V has only one ray tracing setting for reflections, but you can adjust the intensity of this setting in addition to turning it on and off.

Some low-fidelity games, like Minecraft, have a single on/off switch for all ray tracing effects, but they can get away with it because the game isn’t demanding to start with. That said, Minecraft looks like an entirely different game with ray tracing enabled!

Which company has better ray tracing: Nvidia or AMD?

A split screen of a building in a video game with different lighting effects

Credit: Revised / Joanna Nelius / CD Projekt Red

Cyberpunk 2077, left to right: ray tracing on, ray tracing off.

You might think comparing the same scene in a game rendered with an Nvidia graphics card and then an AMD graphics card would tell you which is better, but there won’t actually be much of a visual difference between the two. The best way to answer this question is to look at how much frame rate each brand can produce in the same game.

In our testing, we found that Nvidia’s graphics cards deliver higher in-game frame rates with ray tracing enabled than AMD’s. Nvidia’s cards also consistently score higher than AMD’s cards in synthetic benchmarks, like 3D mark ray tracing tests. This definitely doesn’t mean you can’t get the same or similar result with an AMD graphics card, but it does mean that you may need to turn off the game’s graphics preset or reduce the intensity of some game throwing effects. rays.

This is because each GPU manufacturer incorporates ray tracing cores (the specific part of a graphics card that deals with ray tracing effects) into their card architecture differently. Nvidia’s graphics cards have what the company calls dedicated ray tracing cores, or RT cores, which help the company achieve higher frame rates than its competitor with ray tracing enabled.

When ray tracing is enabled and the main GPU cores are tasked with rendering ray tracing effects, the card hands off the task to the standalone RT cores to handle all the complicated calculations needed to calculate an effect’s exact trajectory. of ray traced lighting. . This delegation of labor makes cards like Nvidia’s RTX 30-series GPUs super efficient at ray tracing.

AMD has combined its ray tracing cores (what it calls ray accelerators, or RAs) with its main GPU cores. Each main core has a ray tracing accelerator, so something like the RX 6800 XT, which has 72 CUs, also has 72 ray accelerators.

Additionally, ARs are capable of processing one triangle intersection per clock, which means they can calculate the intersection of a ray and a 3D triangle with every electrical pulse that passes through the GPU. This is an extremely efficient way to render ray tracing effects without dedicated ray tracing cores, but it’s still not as fast as having dedicated RT cores.

For now, if you want the best ray tracing graphics and best frame rates in the game, we recommend using an Nvidia graphics card. But this technology is just getting started, and we expect it to be commonplace in most video games over the next few years.

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About Johanna Gooding

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